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Views from ‘above the glass ceiling’: women elites, gender power and political office

Fiona Buckley
University College Cork
Fiona Buckley
University College Cork
Open Panel

Abstract

Duerst-Lahti and Kelly (1995: 19) observe that “if masculinity permeates politics...then males, who are much more aligned with masculinity than any female could be, have gender power as a permeating resource to maintain their predominance”. Those who are masculine or who perform masculinity well have advantages in gaining and holding leadership positions. “Therein lies the transformation of gender relations into gender power” (Duerst-Lahti and Kelly, 1995: 20). This paper draws upon the work of Duerst-Lahti and Kelly (1995) and Lipman-Blumen (1984) who assert the concept of ‘gender power’ to analyse women’s access to and performance in public office . When women enter into high level political office, they do so within the ideological terms of masculine norms. Gender power is the power and power dynamic resulting from the practices of people performing gender within the normative constraints gender modes impose. “The interpretation of these practices is implicitly and explicitly rooted in the social constructions that give meaning to biological-physiological sex (and the social interactions between the sexes more generally). Like gender, gender power is dynamic, fluid and situationally derived...the gender power arrangements...derives from masculinism, which in turn shapes gender power. While men and women have access to gender power, that access is highly differential. Masculinism sets the contours of that differentiation (Duerst-Lahti and Kelly, 1995: 20 - 21). This paper will examine the various ways in which women navigate through masculine political spaces - accessing elite political office, presenting themselves in these positions of power and exercising the power/authority they command – and how gender power shapes these performances. When exploring the processes women undertake to access and exercise what Kathleen Jones (1993) terms ‘legitimate powers’ (powers normally associated with men), it will also be necessary to study the experiences of male elites. The paper will present some initial research findings from these investigations.